by Ryan Kerr
Rising Below the Sun is a one-woman, one-act play which explores the relationship between two best friends as they develop from innocent children to angsty teenagers. The story begins with the main character, Leah, slouching and desperate, as she prepares to take her own life. As Leah says, shy to be “caught” – “Sorry. There’s not much else to do around here.”
The audience’s arrival saves her and she embarks on a thorough confessional-style retelling of the competitive friendship she shared with her best friend, Carrol.
Leah and Carrol grew up together in rural Ontario, sharing hobbies, adventures, and many of life’s firsts. The two jump trains together and create a secret society unique to each other, which makes for an enviable symbiosis until they reach high school.
Things begin to go south when both girls aim for similar passions – first in acting, and later, boys – why do boys make everything so much more complicated?! – and the friendship becomes competitive.
Leah’s charming and energetic storytelling is soon peppered with bitter resentment, as she replaces nostalgic flashbacks with pointed attempts to undermine everything she ever praised in Carrol. Leah presents herself as a vain, self-obsessed little girl who is hardly aware of when she has put Carrol on a pedestal, and when she has pushed her from it. The ambiguity of these emotions is initially confusing, until the play’s climax.
The stage was sparely dressed with three black milk cartons, a black table, and a section of two-level scaffolding which acts as a treehouse, the interior of a parked school bus, and the steeple of Saint Isabella Catholic Church. The Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace is an equally sparingly decorated venue, so the barebones set integrated seamlessly into the rest of the room.
McHugh’s physicality throughout the piece (especially in transitions between flashbacks to present day) were fluid and professional. Her zest for life and passionate expression explain her zeal for not only acting, but for writing, producing AND mounting this whole production. Members of her proud family were in the audience the evening I attended.
On the flipside of this evident passion for the theatre, was Cecelia’s cute-as-a-button façade, which weakened her portrayal of an ultimately resentful and cutthroat character.
Watching her playfully bounce from scenario to scenario in the beginning of the show was a real pleasure, witnessing her descent into, well, ‘less sanity’ seemed forced.
Maybe it’s because Cecelia the person reads as teen herself that her potential for wickedness seems less plausible. Try as I might, I won’t be playing a gangster anytime soon either.
Lastly, Cecelia’s writing was really brought to life by her clever use of the space, and the subtle lighting, which illuminated (literally) her journey to teen-hood. Some of her literary references were quite evocative, but also slowed the development of the story.
I would have preferred a more edited version which would focus on Leah’s development, and her own struggles to accept Carrol’s growing impact on her life, rather than on Carrol herself. There were some confusing moments when Leah acted out Carol rather than explaining the impact of the situation.
Rising Below the Sun was a thoughtful and engaging work, one which sparked an interesting conversation between my Mom and I. We both agreed that Cecelia’s family had much to celebrate, indeed.
*author’s note: due to technical difficulties, this post was delayed by a week. My apologies.